The Power of Feeling Small: Paddling the Western Coast of Prince of Wales Island
When a close friend first approached and floated the idea of a big, extended wilderness paddling trip to me, my eyes widened and my mouth blurted, “yes, absolutely!” while the little voice of self-doubt in my brain quietly whispered, “hey, um, you do know you’re not really an expedition paddler, right? A few long weekend trips doesn’t exactly mean you’re prepared for an undertaking of this caliber. Are you sure you should be doing this?”
But I ignored the whisper. I had committed, out loud and in my heart, to nudge that personal comfort zone out a little bit bigger and fling myself whole-heartedly into my unknowns, quiet whispers of self-doubt be damned.
I am a believer in the power of feeling small, of exposing ourselves to calculated risks, stepping into the unknown, and inviting that hot little flame of fear into my belly. I know that these spaces of discomfort (and boy, can they be uncomfortable) are where we mentally and physically challenge ourselves, where we push our own limits, and where we ultimately grow. And I continue to consciously and sub-consciously put myself (for better or worse) into these places of “calculated” risk on purpose. In fact, you could pretty well describe the whole experience of entrepreneurship as a steady stream of ‘calculated risks’ and ensuing internal rollercoasters.
(Image: Our trip route along western POW, from Naukati to Pt. Baker)
Trip details came into focus. Two more women jumped on board. Meals were planned. Gear was packed. And soon we were cruising across a lumpy Clarence Strait from Wrangell to Prince of Wales Island in a jet boat loaded down with two canoes filled with gear.
The route was straightforward: We would hitch a ride on land from Coffman Cove to Naukati, where we would put canoes to water and paddle our way 60-70 miles north over 9 days through the El Capitan Passage, to skirt the outer coast of POW Island, ending at the town of Point Baker with ample time for island hopping and exploring along the way.
(Image: Local oysters grilled over the fire, courtesy of Coffman Cove's Riggin' Shack)
We woke our first morning at camp to the magic of a loon-call alarm clock, sandhill cranes and slooooow morning coffee (setting a delicious pace for the rest of our mornings). We hit the water with warm sunshine and a powerful north wind that set the ocean to movin’ and our boats to buckin’ as we met our first endurance test beating back the wind and crossing over 2-3 foot choppy seas.
Cue a familiar tightening in my chest, drop in the gut, and palpable increase in perspiration as I am once again reminded of my smallness and insignificance against the powerful forces of nature. Though I may be a believer in the power of feeling small, this doesn’t mean I always enjoy the sensation it provokes.
But, I am also a believer in the ‘baptism by fire’ methodology of jumping right in - fears, anxiety-fueled tummy aches and all - and proving to myself that I can do it. And of course we can do it. We did it. Our paddles dig in. My confidence grows, anxiety melts. Our boats dipped and bobbed and splashed salty spray into my face and we had a damn good time riding those waves.
Having met our first challenge right off the bat, the following days were a blur of island hopping, exploring, ocean swimming in the sun, huddling beneath tarps to duck torrents of rain, mysterious bays steeped in ancient folklore, sea otters, seals, schools of flying salmon, belly-laughs, warm campfires and damn good food, caves, waves, winds, and tides.
We found our groove as a group of women. Our arms, backs, and bodies felt strong; our strokes confident. We had paddled the length of the narrow El Capitan Passage, and on day 7 we set off excited for the next and final phase of the trip: the Big Ocean.
(Image: The Pacific gets rowdy)
Our ears perked as we rounded the last rocky islands of protected Shakan Bay, watched by what felt like hundreds of curious eyes from seals and otter heads bobbing among the bay’s many kelp beds. One of us called out, “Do you hear that? Is there a giant waterfall on the other side of this point?”
No my friends. That deafening thunderous sound is the crash of BIG ocean swell hitting the shores outside the bay. And personally may also have been the sound of my heartbeat pounding its way up into my ears.
We nosed out of the big bay, agreeing as a group to take this new rolling, crashing sea-scape one point, one bay at a time, checking in on our individual and collective comfort level along the way. We rose and fell with the ocean swell, adjusting to this new movement of water that was so different from what we’d paddled the week before. Our next point of passage was the Barrier Islands, a 2-mile span of small rocky islands and reef off the outer coast of POW.
Per our nautical charts we reasoned that given the rising tide, the most expedient way to navigate the Barriers would be through the narrow, shallow passes between islands, making our way to the more protected leeward bay on the other side. What we did not anticipate as we neared the first shallow reef was the steady building of the sea from chest-tightening, slightly sweaty 6-foot rolling swells to lump-in-throat, fully nauseated, sweat-soaked 9-foot swells beginning to form sharp peaks.
I had officially stepped beyond my zone of ‘calculated risk’ fear and was now headed straight into the zone of ‘panic-attack provoking alarm bells time to turn tail and GTFOUTTAHERE ASAP!’ fear. I was small. And the ocean was BIG.
So GTF out we did. Recognizing the dramatic shift in conditions, we turned back to the nearest shore where we made camp and deliberated at length over concerns, comfort levels, conditions, safety, and the plan for our next move.
(Image: Snacks, tea, deliberation. And rain.)
With a night’s rest, full bellies, clearer heads and calmer seas the next morning we made a group plan to try our hand at paddling out around the islands in hopes of avoiding the tumultuous surf and building waves we had gotten ourselves into the day before. Our tolerance for discomfort had been raised, and we set out at a steady, if nervous, clip navigating the big, rolling swell a half mile offshore through a dense and ominous fog.
An hour or two later we finally rounded the Barrier Islands. Protected from the winds the swell calmed, the sun burned through the fog, and our knotted up shoulders and guts finally relaxed. We had freaking MADE IT. We had uncomfortably sat right in our fears, considered and weighed all the risks we could think of, listened and worked together as a well-oiled group. And for all this we reaped the sweet reward of a beautiful day paddling the remaining 14 miles of rugged cliffed-out coast in the sun with the wind at our backs and the swell pushing us forward.
(Image: Blue skies on approach to Pt. Baker)
We landed that afternoon in the gorgeous tiny town of Point Baker to frosty celebratory beers, fried food, hot showers and the best night’s sleep in four twin beds overlooking the ocean. (Eternal gratitude to Nettie & fam at the Point Baker Trading Post for being the BEST hosts)
That night, as we toasted Raniers to the whole incredible experience, we looked back on all of the wild ups and downs of the trip. The outrageous and hilarious moments, the ways we acutely experienced each of the 3 Types of Fun, and the evolution we all had made, as individuals and a group to overcome fears, work through challenges, and belly-laugh ourselves over 70 miles of some of the most fun I’ve ever had and most beautiful country I’ve seen.
Pushing the boundary of that comfort zone feels scary and weird, but the rewards are sweet and the lessons are priceless. It can be so powerful to feel small.
(Image: This is what golden victory tastes like)
Written with deep love and gratitude for my paddling partners: three beautiful badass women that wow me, inspire me, and brought me to my knees in laughter every day of this trip (and who took many of these photos!)
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